At a recent foodie gathering in Brunswick, I met Laura McCandlish, a journalist who writes about food and who has worked for Public Radio. (She also has a very snappy blog called BalitmOregon to Maine.) When Laura found out I was a fifth-generation Franco-American, she asked if she could interview me for an audio documentary contest she plans on entering. As I was born in Waterville—which has a big Franco-American population—Laura suggested we meet there so I could show her the Franco section of town—the South End. I agreed, but I did warn her that the South End wasn’t the same as when I was a child. However, Laura wanted to go there anyway so that I could reminisce, and to the South End we went.
For readers unfamiliar with Maine’s history, here’s an extremely brief account of Franco-Americans in Maine. In the 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, New England factory representatives went to Quebec to seek mill workers, and they were extremely successful. Workers, and eventually their large extended families, came in bunches, hoping to do what immigrants have always done—make better lives for themselves and their families, who were extremely poor. Many French Canadians settled in Maine, where factories once abounded, and to this day, Waterville’s Franco-American population stands at about 40 percent. (French Canadians also settled in northern Maine, but that is a different story, and one I won’t go into here.)
For French Canadians who came to work in Maine factories, there is unfortunately a chronicle of discrimination, intimidation (the Klan was huge in Maine, and they marched against Catholics and Franco-Americans), language suppression (French was actually outlawed), and in Waterville, at least, voter suppression. Franco-Americans were second-class citizens, and they certainly knew this was the case. However, times change, situations improve, and the grip of the dominant culture relaxes.
Laura was interested in all of this, but as food is one of her central concerns, she also wanted some information about Franco food. I took her to the South End’s Shewin Street, once home to Vielleux’s Market, the small grocery store where my parents did all their grocery shopping. The market is gone now, as are all the tenement buildings that were around it, and although there is a green park (or ball field) down the hill from where Vielleux’s once stood, the place has a lonely, blasted look, quite different from the vibrant neighborhood I remember.
Memory, I realize, can be tricky and unreliable, but here is what I remember of Vielleux’s Market. Somehow, it is always summer, and it has just rained. On the sidewalk, there is a line of wooden crates filled with fruit—cantaloup, peaches, bananas—and their scent mingles with the smell of the wet pavement. The market is a swirl of people: dusty-legged children in brown shorts run in for Popsicles and candy; skinny women, with their dark hair in pin curls, come for Pepsi and cigarettes, and older women, large and serene in their bright mumus, shop for bread and bologna. Lee, the owner of the market, is in back at the meat counter, and my father is ordering our meat for the week. As my father orders, he munches an uncooked hot dog that Lee has given him, and they talk and talk as Lee slices meat and wraps it in white paper. In the front, neat and tidy, is Christine, the cashier. My mother calls out the prices of the food she’s buying, and Christine rings in the prices. The small counter is overflowing with food. My parents were ardent grocery shoppers, and I come by my good eater moniker quite naturally. Both parents grew up in poverty, and food meant a lot to them. Neither of them ever starved, but they never had quite as much to eat as they wanted or exactly what they would have liked.
The market was small and the variety was basic. There was no fresh basil or parsley. Cilantro? What was that? There were carrots, potatoes, celery, and apples. Cereal, flour, baking powder, and sugar. Cream horns, bread, and turnovers. Dried spaghetti and macaroni. And Spam, Spam, Spam. As well as other staples, of course.
Some of what I’ve written in this post I related to Laura, and some of it I have expanded on here. I am much better at expressing myself in writing than through conversation. (Laura, if you are reading this, then feel free to use whatever you want.)
In an upcoming post I’ll address a question I have asked many times. That is, where are all the cafés serving tortière pies? And what, exactly, is Franco food?